The great boundary-crosser of Iranian cinema, Bahman Ghobadi purposefully steps over the line with No One Knows About Persian Cats — a quasidocumentary, highly unofficial panorama of Tehran's tenacious underground music scene and a movie that has accrued additional urgency since its first public screening at Cannes last May.
Ghobadi's co-writer, journalist Roxana Saberi, was freed from Evin Prison on the eve of Persian Cats' premiere; his assistant director, Mehdi Pourmoussa, is currently confined there, arrested last month along with filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The movie's protagonists, indie rockers Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad (collectively known as Take It Easy Hospital), have since left Iran, as has Ghobadi. Indeed, Persian Cats opens by announcing its own "impossible" status with Ghobadi biding time in a clandestine recording studio because, as the producer explains, "they won't let him film."
This guerrilla enterprise, inspired by a concert where there were 400 arrests, isn't the first to document Iran's forbidden music scene — the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival featured the German-made Sounds of Silence — but it's the first to emerge directly out of its milieu. Shaghaghi and Koshanejad play themselves as recently imprisoned performers speeding around Tehran on the back of a motorbike in a frantic attempt to secure travel documents and recruit a rhythm section for a gig in London. The movie tours what Shaghaghi calls a "hidden world of rebel musicians," as well as bootleg DVD and fake passport hustlers, with visits to assorted crash pads and basement music clubs. Decorously solemn in her outsized glasses and chador, the owlish Negar, looking for bandmates, functions as the de facto interviewer and existential heroine. (She's at one point glimpsed carrying a book by Kafka.)
Persian Cats is likable but undistinguished filmmaking. The riskiest scene was likely the staged confrontation in which Shaghaghi's puppy is confiscated by the morals police. (Pets are not allowed on the street.) The climactic apartment rave notwithstanding, there's not much narrative tension; for all the scruffy kids in Rasta hats and CBGB's T-shirts, the most hyperdramatic performance is given by the desperate fixer Nadar (Hamed Behdad), who, having taken it upon himself to facilitate Shaghaghi and Koshanejad's gig, keeps the couple permanently on edge with his vanishing and reappearing act.
The performers are a mixed bag of metal bands, traditional ensembles, rappers, and buskers. None seem nearly as political as the former Czechoslovakia's legendary Plastic People of the Universe; the closest thing here to a rock 'n' roll manifesto is the acid trance assertion, offered in English, that "dreaming is my reality." Of course, given that everything the movie shows — including two women singing a folk song — is illegal, bravado is a given.